Recently, a video surfaced of students at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity performing an appalling racist chant on video: “There will never be a nigger SAE/There will never be a nigger SAE/You can hang him from a tree/But he’ll never sign with me/There will never be a nigger SAE”. Obviously, this goes way beyond the limits of acceptable freedom of speech. In any other country, this would result in everyone who performed the chant being taken before a government Human Rights Commission and given a hefty prison sentence for willfully inciting racist hatred and violence against vulnerable minorities. In the UK, they would be prosecuted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In Australia, they would be prosecuted by the Australian Human Rights Commission. In New Zealand, they would be prosecuted by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. In Canada, they would be prosecuted by a Human Rights Tribunal, which each Canadian provice has in order to prosecute hate speech. EVERY single other country in the world would have pressed charges against these students under human rights legislation. In the US, however, this was not the case. There are no human rights laws in the US, and there is no American Human Rights Commission to prosecute people for hate speech. Not only did these students not face any legal punishment whatsoever, but it’s even being said that the school cannot punish them either, as doing so would violate their “freedom of speech”. To say that this is completely incompatible with international human rights standards would be a massive understatement. Not only does this violate basic human rights principles, but it also explicitly violates international human rights law, which mandates a wide range of legal protections against hate speech. By not prosecuting these SAE students who participated in a racist rant, the United States is blatantly violating its obligations under legally-binding international human rights conventions.
Does the United States believe that it’s somehow exempt from international law? Because I can assure Americans that that is not, in fact, the case. As the United Nations has stated many, many times, international law has absolute authority, and all nations are absolutely required to outlaw all forms of hate speech. When Salman Rushdie’s Islamophobic book The Satanic Verses was published, human rights experts at the United Nations attacked France for not banning the book, saying that the book was an incitement to racial hatred and thus was illegal under international human rights law. Obviously, the racist chants performed by these SAE students go far beyond anything in Rushdie’s racist novel, so it’s simply a no-brainer that the racist chants performed by the SAE students are in clear violation of international human rights conventions. By failing to prosecute these students, America is once again signalling to the rest of the world that it is completely unconcerned with protecting basic human rights, and that it believes that it should be allowed to flippantly defy international law with impunity.
Obviously, like any sensible person, I believe in freedom of speech, and I believe that freedom of speech must always be upheld to the maximum extent possible – especially when it’s speech that other people may not want to hear, such as pro-LGBT speech in Russia. Freedom of speech is the basic right from which all of our other rights derive from. It would be difficult for me to express in words just how strongly I support the fundamental right to freedom of speech. I may disapprove of what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of any democratic society. But freedom of speech is not the only value that we have. People have the right to freedom of speech, but people have the right to be free from racial vilification too. Like all rights, the right to freedom of speech comes with significant responsibility. Freedom of speech is something that has to be balanced against human rights, including the rights to human dignity and respect. International human rights law – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) – requires all nations to pass and enforce strict laws against hate speech. The ICCPR states that all propaganda for war and all advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred must be outlawed. The ICERD states that all ideas based on racial superiority or hatred must be outlawed, and that membership in any group based on racial superiority or hatred must be declared a criminal offense. The United Nations has stated many times that these laws do not restrict freedom of speech in any way. These are both legally-binding international human rights conventions, and all nations are required to uphold them in the fullest. By failing to prosecute hate speech, the United States is explicitly violating international law.
To people from more human rights-based cultures, the lack of hate speech prohibitions in the US is simply unimaginable. Before moving to the US to work with human rights organizations here, I grew up in Australia, which is a much, much more progressive and human rights-oriented culture than the US (see my recent article on major Australian journalism outlet The Australian Independent Media Network about the need to protect human rights on the Australian Internet). My views represent the views of the overwhelming majority of Australians, and I speak for all Australians when I say that, in Australia, it’s just common sense that freedom of speech doesn’t give anyone the right to offend, insult, humiliate, intimidate, vilify, incite hatred or violence, be impolite or uncivil, disrespect, oppose human rights, spread lies or misinformation, argue against the common good, or promote ideas which have no place in society. We all learned this in school, and it’s not something that’s even up for debate. Under Australian human rights law, it’s highly illegal to say things which may offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate minorities, and even far-right nationalists agree that it should be. At one point, Australia even came close to passing human rights legislation (the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill) requiring anyone accused of offending, insulting, humiliating, or intimidating others to prove their innocence or be declared automatically guilty (to ensure maximum effectiveness, the accused would have to pay their legal costs even if they were found to be innocent, and the legislation would also outlaw any expression of religious belief if someone were offended by it). This human rights legislation – which was proposed by Australia’s centrists – was wholeheartedly supported by every single human rights group in Australia (including the federal Australian Human Rights Commission), with many progressives and human rights activists complaining that it actually didn’t go far enough. The principle of guilty until proven innocent may seem harsh to Americans, but Australians simply refuse to tolerate any manifestations of hate speech, and Australia is willing to go to any lengths in order to crack down on hatred. That’s what a civilized society does. Hatred has absolutely no place whatsoever in a civilized society.
There are two sides to the free speech debate in Australia: the people who believe that all offensive or insulting speech should always be illegal (the vast majority of Australians), and the people who believe that only racial vilification or incitement to hatred should be illegal (the far-right, ultra-libertarian free speech fundamentalists). There isn’t a single person in Australia who thinks that there should be NO legal restrictions on hate speech or vilification, and only a tiny minority of people believe that offensive or insulting speech should ever be allowed. The idea of having no laws whatsoever against hate speech is simply unfathomable in a culture where people have basic human rights. In fact, even most hardcore libertarians and free speech activists in Australia still strongly agree that all offensive or insulting speech should always be against the law. The Australian Sex Party, for example, is perhaps the most ultra-libertarian party in Australia, and it has publicly stated that freedom of speech should never include the right to offend or insult. George Brandis is easily the most extreme free speech fundamentalist in Australia, but even he has stated many times that Holocaust denial, racial vilification, incitement to hatred, and offensive opinions that aren’t part of a public discussion should be against the law. The principle that freedom of speech does not protect hate speech is something that all Australians agree with, and it’s something that more or less everyone outside of the US agrees with as well. Polls have repeatedly shown that practically all Australians – at least 88% – strongly agree that speech which offends, insults, or humiliates should always be illegal. In fact, some polls have even shown that upwards of 95% of Australians strongly support legal prohibitions on hate speech. The need to protect vulnerable minorities from hate speech is something that’s not even questioned in countries outside of the US; it’s just something that everyone supports, like the need to outlaw murder. Protecting vulnerable minorities from hate speech is a staple of any civilized democratic society, as hatred and intolerance go against the very principles of liberal democracy.
America is the only nation that fails to make the necessary distinction between free speech and hate speech, and this does a great deal of damage to America’s international image. After all, the US considers the rights of hateful racists to be more important than the basic human rights of vulnerable and marginalized minorities. What kind of message does that send to the rest of the world? The fact that the US does not prosecute people for racism and hatred is completely unacceptable and downright disgusting to people in more progressive countries. For example, when the US failed to press charges against Donald Sterling for his racist hate speech, almost everyone in Australia was outraged, and human rights activists used it as an example of how the US is a backwards, anti-human rights culture that Australia should never seek to emulate (Tim Soutphommasane of the Australian Human Rights Commission used the Donald Sterling affair as an example of why Australia needs to retain its strong laws against all forms of offensive speech, and the vast majority of Australians agreed). Australians had a similar reaction when the US failed to charge Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson for the vilification of LGBT people, with many Australian human rights groups and LGBT rights groups holding up Robertson’s lack of prosecution as an example of how backwards and uncivilized the US is. In Australia, the UK, and any other civilized society, both Donald Sterling and Phil Robertson would have been taken before a Human Rights Commission and given a hefty fine or prison sentence for incitement to hatred. To people in a more civilized, human rights-oriented society like Australia, it’s just absolutely unfathomable how anyone could think that such toxic, backwards hatred has any place in society. Every single time that America fails to press charges against hatemongers, it does a massive deal of damage to its international image and reputation. It sends the message to the rest of the world that America supports racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, hatred, and bigotry. Is that really what America wants to be known for? As the only country in the world where hatred and bigotry are considered acceptable?
Whenever I tell other Australians that the US has no laws whatsoever against racial vilification or incitement to hatred, they are left in stunned disbelief and disgust. Most of the time, they actually refuse to believe me. To people from more progressive cultures, it’s simply impossible to believe that any advanced democracy in the 21st century could have no laws whatsoever against any forms of hate speech, in clear defiance of international human rights law. Oftentimes, I have people ask me how the US can possibly call itself a free country when it lacks any sort of legal protections against hate speech. For people in more civilized and enlightened countries like Australia and the UK, it’s just incredibly sad and depressing how Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that freedom of speech gives people the right to say anything, even when it’s obviously harmful to society. Hate speech causes very real and very measurable harm. Hate speech in the US not only has a devastating effect on the most vulnerable and marginalized sections of society, but it also kills people. Whether it’s Islamophobic hate speech inciting the murder of Muslims (as recently happened in Chapel Hill) or propaganda from the gun lobby manipulating public opinion against sensible gun bans (thus leading to the deaths of thousands of people every year), hate speech does have very real and often very fatal consequences in the real world. For perfect examples of what can happen when hatemongers are allowed to manipulate public opinion against the common good, we can look no further than the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and every other genocide in history. Countries like Germany and Rwanda have learned the hard way what can happen when you tolerate intolerance. As the great human rights activist Tim Soutphommasane has said, “genocide begins with words.”
For many decades, the United Nations and countless human rights groups (including Amnesty International) have told the US that it needs to pass and enforce strong legislation against all forms of hate speech. America is required to outlaw hate speech under legally-binding international human rights conventions, but America steadfastly refuses to do so. The US is, as of 2015, the only country in the world without any kind of legislation against hate speech. The fact that the US still does not have a law against hate speech in the 21st century is a national embarrassment, and it’s an embarrassment that can be easily fixed. In accordance with international human rights standards, the US needs to pass a Human Rights Act outlawing all forms of hate speech, and it needs to set up a federal American Human Rights Commission – along with separate Human Rights Commissions in each state – in order to prosecute people for hate speech and other human rights abuses. In addition to passing strong legislation against hate speech, the US needs to report to the UN and it needs to allow the UN to prosecute Americans under the UN courts. When other countries fail to press hate speech charges against their citizens, the UN often steps in and presses charges under the UN courts. In America, however, that would currently be impossible. Along with reporting to the UN and allowing the UN to prosecute Americans under the UN courts, America also needs to hand over control of the Internet to the United Nations, which will use the international human rights framework in order to protect human rights online, as it has repeatedly encouraged all nations to do. The UN has stated many times that fighting the spread of hate speech on the Internet is one of its biggest human rights concerns in the modern era. Unfortunately, the fact that America controls most of the Internet – and stubbornly refuses to pass any sort of human rights legislation limiting hate speech – makes it very difficult for the UN and the international community to protect human rights online.
The incident at SAE is not an isolated incident. The US is perhaps the world’s biggest net exporter of hatred, and hate speech from the US tends to flow into other countries like an ocean (especially on the Internet, where America control of the Internet makes it very difficult for the rest of the world to protect basic human rights online). But it doesn’t have to remain that way. America CAN bring itself up to international human rights standards. It can start doing that by passing human rights legislation that strikes the right balance between freedom of speech and freedom from hatred, which all other civilized countries have already done. Allowing the unfettered expression of bigoted and discriminatory views is not something that any civilized society would do. Freedom of speech should never be something that hurts people, and America will never be up to international human rights standards until it starts to enforce basic principles of respect and human dignity. Under international human rights law (the ICCPR and ICERD), the US is required to ban all forms of hate speech, including any ideas based on racial superiority or hatred. Racism is something that has absolutely no place in a modern democracy, and the only way to get rid of hatred is to aggressively prosecute all manifestations of it. The current stance taken by America – that freedom of speech protects hatred and discrimination – is hideously backwards, outdated, and totally contrary to established international human rights conventions. By failing to prosecute hate speech, the US is not only violating basic human rights, but it’s also violating international law. It’s time to change that. The time to start cracking down on hate speech and protecting fundamental human rights is right now. The US is the only country that considers racism and hatred to be acceptable, which makes the US look completely barbaric and uncivilized to the rest of the world. After all, even Turkey has laws against hate speech, and has prosecuted people for referring to LGBT people as “perverted”. It’s pretty sad when even Turkey respects basic human rights more than the US does.
Hate speech is intimately linked to physical violence against vulnerable minorities. Not only does hate speech directly incite violent attacks on minorities, but hate speech is, by itself, a form of violence against vulnerable and marginalized groups. To vulnerable minorities, hate speech can be just as hurtful and damaging – if not more so – than physical violence. In Australia, people make absolutely no distinction whatsoever between hate speech and physical violence; the two are one and the same. The terms “hate speech” and “violence” are often used interchangeably in Australia, as the two things are inseparable. In America, however, most people fail to recognize that not only does hate speech cause violence, but that hate speech is itself a form of violence. Hate speech is a form of verbal assault, and hate speech has directly incited every single act of racial and religious violence and genocide throughout all of history, from the Holocaust to the Rwandan Genocide to the genocide in Srebrenica. Did the Nazis have the “right” to incite racial hatred against Jews, thus directly inciting the Holocaust? The Nuremberg courts certainly didn’t think so, and neither would any sane, reasonable, and civilized society.
Should “freedom of speech” protect violence? Was it “free speech” when Anders Behring Breivik killed seventy-seven innocent people after being incited by racist hate speech on the Internet? Was it “free speech” when Frazier Glenn Miller shot up a Jewish community center based on anti-Semitism? Was it “free speech” when the Nazis killed twelve million people in concentration camps based on racial hatred? I certainly don’t think so, and neither does every single country except for the US. When the Jewish community center shooting happened in the US in 2014, countless Australians (including the Australian media) used it as an example of a strong warning for anyone who thinks that racial vilification is acceptable. Australians understand that racist hate speech is directly linked to racial violence, race riots, and genocide (when the Abbott government proposed watering down our federal laws against offensive speech, it was widely said that weakening laws against hate speech would lead directly to racial violence, race riots, and genocide). But, even when Americans are directly confronted with the deadly consequences of racial hate speech right in their own country, they still refuse to take action against it. Do Americans have any idea how absurd, backwards, and downright uncivilized this looks to the rest of the world? It’s similar to how Americans refuse to ban firearms, despite being confronted over and over again with the extreme dangers that come with gun proliferation. Gun proliferation is not “freedom” to the thousands of people killed by guns every single year, just like hate speech is not “freedom” to the vulnerable minorities who already face widespread violence and discrimination in American society.
Hate speech kills people, and the hate speech demonstrated by the SAE fraternity has killed people as well. In 2011, the SAE fraternity hazed a black student to death in an incident based on racial hatred. The racist chant that we saw in the now-infamous video is now believed to have incited this vicious act of racist murder. Every single student who performed that racist chant is every bit as responsible for the racist murder of this black student as the students who carried out the murder themselves. People who promote hatred need to be held personally responsible for the consequences of their hatemongering. When the Cronulla race riots happened in Australia, right-wing radio host Alan Jones was prosecuted for making comments on-air which incited racial hatred, thus causing the Cronulla riots to happen. Civilized countries hold people personally responsible when their comments incite hatred and/or violence. In the US, however, people who promote hatred are never held legally responsible for the consequences of their hatemongering, even when their hatemongering leads directly to murder. Sarah Palin, for example, as never charged for inciting the murders in Tucson, Arizona, and Bill Maher was never charged for inciting the murders in Chapel Hill. Hate speech in the US not only leads to acts of murder like this, but even leads to highly devastating wars all over the world. Thanks to the war propaganda of right-wing “news” outlets like Fox News, the American public has been manipulated into supporting highly damaging and destructive wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Propaganda for war is explicitly illegal under international human rights law (section 20 of the ICCPR), but none of these people have ever been charged for promoting war. This is completely and totally unacceptable in a so-called “civilized” society, and it’s also totally incompatible with international human rights standards.
Some things are more important than “freedom of speech”, like basic human rights, tolerance, respect, civility, human dignity, freedom from hatred, community harmony, human decency, and social cohesion. The kind of behavior demonstrated by the students at SAE is completely unacceptable, and it simply has no place in a modern democratic society. The same goes for all forms of hatred and bigotry. The First Amendment should not be seen as a barrier to banning hate speech in the US, as all democracies guarantee freedom of speech. The US is the only democracy that considers hate speech to be part of “freedom of speech”, in clear violation of international law. This is, again, a very outdated and extremely backwards stance. Hate speech is not “freedom of speech” at all, but is, in fact, a form of violence which must be subject to strong legal sanctions. There are two core principles that form the human rights-based approach to freedom of speech: the human right to freedom of speech and the human right to be protected from hate speech. Just as freedom of speech does not protect the right to shout “FIRE!” in a crowded theater, freedom of speech also does not protect the right to spew hatred and intolerance, and freedom of speech certainly does not allow anyone to argue against the common good, to oppose human rights, or to promote ideas which have no place in society. Freedom of speech does NOT give you the right to say things which are completely unacceptable to the vast majority of people. Freedom of speech does NOT give you the right to undermine progress or to be on the wrong side of history. Freedom of speech does NOT give you the right to damage social cohesion or attack human dignity. Most of all, freedom of speech does NOT give you the right to hurt people or to hurt society.
For an example of the approach that America should seek to emulate, the US should again look towards Australia. As a culture based on fundamental human rights, Australia allows genuine freedom of speech, but bans right-wing hatemongers, Holocaust deniers, vaccine deniers, bigots, trolls, bullies, harmful media (including violent video games), terrorism sympathizers, pick-up artists (and all other forms of rape culture), and anyone who attempts to argue against the common good (Australia is also starting to crack down on climate change deniers as well). In order to prevent right-wing hatemongers from gaining too much influence, Australia also regulates who can own media outlets, and all media outlets in Australia are strictly regulated to ensure that they are fair, balanced, civil, responsible, accurate, and truthful. During the more progressive Julia Gillard administration, Australia attempted to set up a system (under the Finkelstein Inquiry) where all blogs and media outlets (including online ones) must register with the government for licensing (Australian progressives plan to bring back this system when they win the next election). Australian journalists have always been the biggest supporters of press licensing legislation like the Finkelstein Inquiry, because the press licensing is intended to shut down right-wing “journalism” outlets while protecting real journalism. When right-wing hatemongers like Rupert Murdoch are allowed to pass their hate off as “journalism”, it can be very misleading and harmful to a general public that isn’t mentally equipped to separate real journalism from right-wing lies. Everyone has the right to accurate information, and nobody has the right to spread lies and hatred as “journalism” and “news”. This is something that all Australian journalists (aside from right-wing so-called “journalists”) understand. Why is it something that American journalists don’t seem to understand?
There isn’t anyone in Australia who doesn’t support hate speech/vilification laws, and there certainly aren’t any “progressives” in Australia who don’t support hate speech/vilification laws. The most extreme, most hardcore, and most ultra-libertarian free speech fundamentalists in Australia are the ones who believe that offensive or insulting speech shouldn’t ALWAYS be illegal, but that incitement to hatred and racial vilification (including Holocaust denial) should always be illegal, and that offensive or insulting speech should always be illegal when it’s not participating in a relevant, constructive public discussion. This is the absolute most extreme free speech fundamentalist position that exists in Australia. However, these people are considered to be extremely radical and far-right, and the overwhelming majority of Australians believe that all offensive or insulting speech should always be illegal. At any rate, absolutely nobody in Australia believes that laws against incitement to hatred and racial vilification infringe on their sacred right to freedom of speech, and even the most hardcore libertarians in Australia firmly support these laws. Only in the US would anyone consider common-sense hate speech restrictions to be somehow an infringement on “freedom of speech”. As parents and teachers, we tell our children that bullying is wrong and that politeness and civility are extremely important. Why should the rules be any different for adults? Why do adults suddenly get to “change the rules”? Are politeness and civility somehow less important for adults than they are for children? Do bullying and rudeness suddenly become okay once you become an adult? I certainly don’t think so, and neither does Australia.
When my recent article was posted on The Australian Independent Media Network in which I spoke about the need to crack down on Internet hatred and protect human rights online, I got a universally positive response from Australians and a universally negative response from Americans. Many Americans left angry comments trying to argue that people somehow had a “right” to engage in hatred and intolerance. Thankfully, the Australian readers of the site were able to talk some sense to the Americans. This was my favorite comment, in which a sensible Australian reader responded to an angry American:
“There is no point in complaining about how Americans ” do anything because they are beyond listening. That does not mean we should emulate them. In my opinion, our society functions far better than yours Keith and I will continue to be bemused by why you can’t see that. Health and education are affordable in our country, unlike yours. I don’t know anyone who owns a gun or would ever feel the need to. This ridiculous notion that we must defend the rights of people to be bastards may be your culture…it isn’t mine, so I would respectfully suggest that you do less pontificating and more research about our comparative societies.
Another Australian commenter said, in response to my article:
America is an empire in decline – I’m happy to see that demise despite all the greatness that has occurred during it’s reign. It lacks a sense of belonging in the human family, seeing itself expressly as ‘exceptional’ and this, in my view, is its greatest failing.
The US constitution was written in a different time, yet it holds such sway over it’s citizen’s life as to ultimately contribute to the end of the US as an empire. The article points it the contradictions embedded in the pursuit of a freedom of speech at the expense of personal freedom to remain free from vilification and hate. America is in fact a nation of vast and unreconciled contradictions.
That ending is already in progress, and will be long and drawn out – in fits and starts – but since America has established no unique, deep philosophical foundations, it cannot last. China, by comparison has such foundations.
Australians – particularly Australian human rights activists – often use America as an example of a backwards, uncivilized, anti-human rights society that we should see as an example of what NOT to do. Unlike America, Australia recognizes the importance of a civil and polite society. There is no “right to be a bastard” in Australia, and there certainly is no “right to be a bigot”. There is absolutely no logical reason that anyone has the “right” to behave in a manner which is contrary to community standards. Australians very strongly believe in freedom of speech, but we understand that freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. Americans are the only people who fail to grasp this basic human rights principle. Americans really don’t seem to understand what freedom of speech actually is. They don’t seem to understand that there is a fundamental distinction between free speech and hate speech, and that hate speech is something which simply has no place in a modern democratic society.
In Australia, laws exist in order to enforce acceptable behavior. If something is unacceptable, then there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t also be illegal. If you told an Australian that something is unacceptable, but shouldn’t be illegal, then they would laugh at you and call you a confused idiot. In Australia, Europe, and everywhere else in the world, it’s simply common sense that, if something is unacceptable, then it should therefore be banned. Americans are the only people who seem to think that it makes any logical sense whatsoever to support the legal right to engage in unacceptable behavior. We outlaw bigotry because for the exact same reason that we outlaw assault and murder: because it’s unacceptable. Should assault and murder be considered “free speech” too? Because that seems to be the kind of logic that Americans use when they say that people have the “right” to spew hatred and bigotry. In the words of leading Australian human rights activist Professor Kerryn Phelps: “‘People have a right to be bigots’ is like saying ‘People with a violent tendency have the right to assault'”.
There are two kinds of freedoms: freedom to do something and freedom from something. When freedoms interfere with other freedoms, they have to be restricted or removed. There can be no “freedom to murder someone” because that interfere’s with someone else’s freedom from being murdered. Likewise, there can be no “freedom” to spew hatred because that interferes with the freedom of vulnerable minorities: their freedom from hatred, their freedom from racial vilification, and their freedom to not have lies told about them. These are very simple, very easy-to-understand human rights principles, and Americans are the only people who seem to struggle to understand them. Most Australians, Europeans, and Canadians believe that Americans are a hopelessly lost cause since Americans simply refuse to listen to any kind of logic or reason. I, however, remain committed to bringing the US up to international human rights standards, no matter how many angry bigots lash out at me for it. As I said in my recent Australian Independent Media Network article:
Like all democratic rights, the right to freedom of speech comes with significant responsibility and has to be balanced against other rights. Nobody has the right to spread lies, falsehoods, or misleading information. The right to accurate information – and the right to be fully informed – are needed in order to fulfill democratic duty, and spreading misinformation can be very dangerous (just ask the countless people who have died thanks to anti-vaccine propaganda, or the countless people who have died thanks to the gun lobby’s propaganda in the US). This is perfectly consistent with libertarian principles, as withholding information or spreading misinformation manipulates free choices and therefore subverts liberty. As any human rights lawyer could explain, the human right to freedom of speech must be balanced against other human rights, including the human rights to protection from vilification, libel, slander, propaganda, misleading information, incitement, insult, offense, hatred, discrimination, and so forth. Freedom of speech is also never a license to oppose human rights. You cannot oppose racial equality, you cannot support Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, you cannot oppose marriage equality, you cannot support laws that curtail civil liberties, you cannot oppose a woman’s right to have an abortion, you cannot support inhumane treatment of refugees, you cannot oppose liberal democracy, and you cannot support the death penalty, to name just a few things. A society based on fundamental human rights has absolutely no place for anyone who opposes these fundamental human rights.
Again, the views that I express in this article (and in my other articles) represent the views of more or less everyone in Australia. There is not a single person in Australia who believes that there should be NO laws whatsoever against hate speech or vilification. If anyone in Australia ever DARED to suggest that all laws against hate speech/vilification should be completely abolished, they would immediately lose their job, they would lose all of their friends, they would receive universal outrage, they would be turned into Australia’s public enemy #1, and they would have to hire bodyguards (I’m not even exaggerating here). In fact, even suggesting that hate speech laws should be slightly weakened will get you universally labeled a racist Nazi bigot and harshly condemned from all corners of Australian society. In Australia, saying that you don’t support laws against hate speech will get you treated exactly the same as saying that you support violent attacks against minorities, segregation, and genocide. Opposing hate speech laws in Australia means admitting that you’re a bigot. It’s as simple as that. If anyone in Australia ever said that they aren’t a bigot, but they think bigotry shouldn’t be against the law, they would be laughed at. Nobody who isn’t an extreme bigot would ever propose weakening Australia’s laws against bigoted speech. Only a very small number of far-right extremists believe that Australia’s strict hate speech laws should be weakened to any degree, and those people are unanimously scorned as hateful racists trying to remove the basic human rights of vulnerable minorities.
Most Australians – including Human Rights Law Centre Director Hugh de Kretser, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law Director Professor Sarah Joseph, Amnesty International Australia President Nicole Bieske, human rights activist Julian Burnside, human rights lawyer Josh Bornstein, and human rights lawyer Mariam Veiszadeh, to name just a few – believe that our current hate speech laws don’t go nearly far enough. In America, however, even “progressives” seem to oppose laws against hate speech. In Australia, it would be absolutely laughable for someone to call themselves a “progressive” while opposing laws against hate speech. After all, even Australia’s far-right nationalists still support laws against hate speech. You simply cannot call yourself a progressive in Australia unless you support the outlawing of all un-progressive speech. One of the most fundamental goals of the Australian progressive movement is ensuring that anyone who voices un-progressive ideas is aggressively prosecuted, and this is something that all Australian progressives firmly agree with. But that’s not the case in America. I’ve actually had many American so-called “progressives” tell me that there shouldn’t be any laws whatsoever against hate speech. How can Americans honestly call themselves “progressive” when they don’t even support the enactment of legislation to protect vulnerable minorities from hate speech? What on Earth is “progressive” about supporting a free-for-all of hatred against the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society, who already face widespread hatred and violence to begin with? There is absolutely nothing “progressive” about defending the “rights” of hateful bigots, but opposing the basic human rights of vulnerable minorities. That is the exact opposite of “progressive”.
In today’s globalized world, what happens in the US is seen in other countries very quickly. The racist chanting at SAE made the news around the world. People in more civilized countries were absolutely disgusted by the racist chanting, but they were even more disgusted by the fact that the US didn’t even prosecute the people responsible for the racist chanting. What this effectively tells the rest of the world is that the US finds it completely acceptable to chant about murdering innocent blacks. Is that really what Americans want their country to be known for? As a country where racism and hatred are acceptable and widespread? Hate speech not only makes the US look bad, but it can also damage America’s international relations. For example, racist hate speech against Muslims – like the disgusting “Innocence of Muslims” video – has incited violence all over the world, and has done a great deal of harm to America’s relationship with Islamic countries. When the “Innocence of Muslims” video was released, he United Nations, the European Union, the Council of Europe, Amnesty International, and human rights organizations all over the world said the exact same thing: the video clearly constitutes incitement to racist hatred and violence against Muslims, the video should be banned, and the people responsible for the video should be prosecuted. But America refused to listen to any voices of reason and, as such, the video resulted in a deadly embassy attack that left many people dead. Ultimately, America has to ask themselves: is the so-called “right” to racially and religiously vilify minorites really more important than human life? Because hate speech does, as mentioned before, often have fatal consequences. Just ask the people killed as a direct result of the “Innocence of Muslims” video, the people killed as a direct result of the Danish Muhammed cartoons, or the people killed as a direct result of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons inciting racist hatred against Muslims. Hatred does have consequences, and those consequences can often be fatal. Is it really worth having people killed just so that hateful bigots can spew misleading vitriol at vulnerable minorities? Is the so-called “right” to racially and religiously vilify minorities really THAT valuable? In addition, is “the right to be a bigot” more important than basic human rights? I certainly don’t think so, and neither does any other country.
What I will truly never understand is the idea that the so-called “right” to racially vilify ethnic minorities is somehow more important than their right to not be racially vilified. I suppose it’s easy for privileged white men who lack empathy for vulnerable minorities to say that they have a “right” to be a bigot, but how can anyone with even the slightest level of basic human empathy and decency possibly claim that the “right” to spew hatred at vulnerable minorities outweighs the vulnerable minorities’ right to not be subjected to hatred? By this same logic, does the “right” to punch someone in the face outweigh someone else’s right to not be punched in the face? Of course not. All rights are balanced against other rights, and there is absolutely no logical reason that speech should be any different. Your right to swing your fist ends where someone else’s nose begins, and your right to freely express yourself ends where someone else’s right to freedom from racial vilification and hatred begins. All rights are subject to other rights. The human right to freedom of speech has always been subject to the human rights to dignity, respect, and non-discrimination. Human rights is all about striking the right balance between rights – for example, striking the right balance between freedom of speech and freedom from hatred. These are not difficult concepts to understand, so why do Americans have such a seemingly hard time understanding them? Why are Americans the only people in the world who cannot seem to grasp these basic human rights principles?
What’s especially baffling is that even many minorities in the US don’t seem to support laws intended to protect them from hate speech. For example, on more than one occasion, I have had African-Americans tell me that it would be “ridiculous” to prosecute people for making racist comments. Vulnerable minorities in the US really don’t seem to understand the harmful effects that hate speech has on them, and the very real danger that hate speech places them in. Ultimately, I chalk this up to brainwashing. Americans – including minority Americans – have been heavily brainwashed into thinking that “freedom of speech” means the freedom to say anything. Unfortunately, once people have been brainwashed, it can be very difficult to un-brainwash them. To people in more civilized countries like Australia, it’s just dreadfully sad to see how Americans have been conned into thinking that freedom of speech gives people the right to racially vilify ethnic minorities, oppose human rights, argue against the common good, and spew hatred. This is not something that people in any civilized country would ever believe. Can America honestly even call itself a civilized democracy when it lacks even the most basic legal protections against hatred? The answer is no – it can’t. Hate speech has no place in any civilized society, and any society that allows hate speech is not a civilized society at all. Until the US enacts human rights legislation outlawing all forms of hate speech, it will not be able to call itself a civilized society, a free society, or an advanced liberal democracy.
In Australia, our hate speech laws exist to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society: in particular, our Indigenous community, our Muslim community, our Jewish community, and our refugee community. The hate speech laws do not prevent members of vulnerable groups from venting their anger at the white majority. In 2006, for example, an Australian court ruled that an Indigenous Australian girl could not be prosecuted for calling someone a “white slut” since whites are not a vulnerable and marginalized group who need legal protections from racial hatred. Hate speech charges cannot be pressed against members of vulnerable groups, as that would defeat the entire purpose of the legislation. Members of vulnerable minorities have every right to hate the white colonial system that has historically been their largest oppressor, and they have every right to vocalize that hatred. Freedom of speech, after all, primarily exists so that vulnerable and marginalized people can speak out against oppression. It does NOT exist so that people who already hold the most power and privilege in society can talk down to the oppressed. Allowing the already-powerful to denigrate and belittle the already-oppressed under the guise of “freedom of speech” would defeat the entire purpose of freedom of speech.
A civilized society does not allow uncivilized speech. A democratic society does not allow un-democratic speech. A free society does not allow speech that opposes freedom. A society with basic human rights does not allow speech that opposes basic human rights. Freedom of speech, again, comes with responsibility. Speech can accomplish great good, but it can also accomplish great evil. I again point to the Holocaust, which was preceded by endless amounts of racist hate speech against Jews and other minorities in Germany. Evil speech leads directly to evil deeds. When evil speech is allowed to flourish, evil deeds are inevitable. The only way to stop those evil deeds from happening is to crack down hard on the evil speech that incites those evil deeds. Evil individuals – and evil corporations – should never be allowed to manipulate public opinion against the common good. When the Nazis manipulated public opinion against the common good in Germany, it led to World War II and the deaths of more than twelve million people in concentration camps. Does America really want history to repeat itself? Is the so-called “right” to spew hatred really so important that it outweighs all of the significant risks and harmful effects that result from hate speech? The answer to that question is no. But, unfortunately, most Americans still seem to think that the answer is yes. No matter how many times Americans are confronted with the extreme dangers of hate speech, they still seem to think that hate speech has a legitimate place in society. Again, I can only chalk this up to a profound level of brainwashing. Nothing else could possibly manage to make so many people believe something so profoundly wrong and so deeply illogical.
I have worked for many of the most prominent human rights organizations around the world. In Australia, I worked for Amnesty International Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, and the Human Rights Working Group of the Greens NSW. I know human rights very well. As prominent human rights activist Hugh de Kretser (the leader of the Human Rights Law Centre) has said many times, hate speech has absolutely no place in a civilized society based on fundamental human rights. Likewise, Professor Sarah Joseph (the leader of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law) has repeatedly dismissed all arguments against the banning of hate speech as “ignorant nonsense” by people who clearly have no understanding of the harm that hate speech causes and no understanding of why hate speech needs to be suppressed. Hate speech is not only a violation of human rights, but it’s also something that all nations are required to outlaw under legally-binding international human rights conventions. Freedom of speech exists so that people can have a civil, polite, constructive, and respectful conversation about issues worth discussing – NOT so that people who already hold far too much power and privilege in society can spew hatred at the most oppressed, vulnerable, and marginalized segments of society. Hate speech is not free speech, and it’s time for America to finally pass and enforce strict laws against hate speech, as every other country has already done. America has signed and ratified the ICCPR and ICERD and, as such, America is obligated to enforce strong legal protections against all forms of hate speech. The United Nations has made it abundantly clear that international human rights law has absolute authority, and that international human rights law must be obeyed to the fullest. The UN has also stated many times that the required prohibitions on hate speech are entirely compatible with freedom of speech – in fact, outlawing hate speech is necessary in order to protect freedom of speech. Hate speech is itself a form of censorship, as it silences the voices of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society.
I am fully committed to defending freedom of speech, and I believe that censorship is never justified. Whenever there has been a legitimate restriction on freedom of speech, I have worked to end it. I have campaigned against Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws. I have campaigned against Pussy Riot’s incarceration by the Russian government. I have campaigned to ensure that LGBT pride parades can take place in Serbia, Turkey, and many other countries. When Zionists have attempted to silence criticism of Israel’s atrocities, I have campaigned against them. I have vigorously campaigned and protested against the right-wing Australian government’s metadata retention laws, and its prosecution of whistleblowers. When the Australian state of Victoria unveiled laws designed to prevent progressive protests from taking place, I campaigned against the proposed laws. When the Australian state of Tasmania unveiled strict “business defamation” laws designed to prevent criticism of toxic businesses, I campaigned against the proposed laws – and, in the end, freedom of speech won. The proposed laws were abandoned. I have spent much of my life campaigning for freedom of speech. But campaigning for freedom of speech does not mean campaigning for freedom of hate speech. Hate speech is not just speech – it is a form of violence.
Laws against hate speech are not censorship and do not restrict freedom of speech, and the UN has stated many times that banning all forms of hate speech is entirely compatible with freedom of speech. The US is the only country where people seem to think that freedom of speech protects hate speech. Only in the US would anyone consider cracking down on hatred and bigotry to be a form of “censorship”, even though the United Nations has stated many times that banning hate speech does not interfere with freedom of speech. In Australia, the people who support hate speech laws the most – and the people who supported the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill declaring people automatically guilty of hate speech until proven innocent – are the very same people who support an Australian Bill of Rights guaranteeing all Australian citizens the right to freedom of speech. This is because Australians understand that hate speech is not a part of free speech. Only in America would anyone consider being a free speech activist and supporting strict bans on hate speech to be somehow contradictory. Almost all free speech activists in Australia and Europe support strict bans on hate speech. Even the most dedicated free speech fundamentalists outside of the US are able to understand that hate speech is not free speech. Why, then, are Americans seemingly not able to understand this?
Hate speech is not free speech. This is a principle that every single man, woman, and child outside of the US understands, and it’s not something that’s even up for debate. We all learned in school that free speech and hate speech are two entirely different and opposite things. Nobody questions this, and nobody believes that free speech and hate speech are anything other than two entirely separate categories of speech. Unfortunately, the principle that hate speech is not free speech is something that Americans don’t seem to understand. When Americans talk about “freedom of speech”, they usually mean the freedom to engage in public hate speech. That’s not what freedom of speech is. Freedom of speech does not protect hatred, just like freedom of speech does not protect death threats or shouting fire in a crowded theater. Freedom of speech does NOT mean freedom of hate speech. What the US needs to do is to pass laws that strongly protect free speech while strictly banning all forms of hate speech. This is what every other advanced democracy has already done, from Australia to Canada to the UK to Denmark to New Zealand to France to South Africa and everywhere else. In fact, even Japan is now passing laws to ban hate speech after the United Nations and hundreds of human rights groups launched a successful campaign to outlaw hate speech in the country. Japan – like all other advanced democracies – guarantees freedom of speech. If Japan can outlaw hate speech, then so can the US. The First Amendment does not in any way prohibit hate speech legislation from being enacted. Every country with hate speech laws also guarantees freedom of speech. Only in the US does anyone consider freedom of speech to be something that protects hatred, in blatant defiance of international human rights law.
Hate speech in the US not only targets vulnerable minorities, but also everyone from celebrities to political figures. In the US, people from all walks of life are routinely attacked, insulted, mocked, ridiculed, and defamed without any regard whatsoever for their basic human rights or human dignity. This is not what “freedom of speech” is all about. The true purpose of freedom of speech is to allow citizens to criticize their government, provided that they remain civil, polite, and respectful while doing so, and provided that they do not oppose human rights or attempt to undermine progress. In a civilized society, it is absolutely crucial for all public debate to be civil, polite, and respectful. “I disagree with the policies of the government” is free speech, but “the government is selling us out” is hate speech and should not be tolerated. The level of discourse found in the US is very uncivil and a violation of basic human rights. I also believe that it plays a large role in the amount of violent crime in the US. When you don’t crack down on hate speech – including hate speech disseminated through the media and the Internet – then you end up with people like Timothy McVeigh and Jared Lee Loughner, who are incited to commit atrocities. In countries where the public discourse is more civil, polite, and respectful, there is much less violent crime as a result. While the lack of sensible gun bans in the US no doubt contributes heavily to the level of violent crime in the US as well, it’s obvious that the hateful, impolite, and uncivil nature of American public discourse also plays a very large role. Not only are there no hate speech laws in the US, but there is also no media regulation, which means that the American media can be as crass, hateful, uncivil, impolite, inaccurate, unbalanced, and downright wrong as it wants to be – and the American media is free to manipulate public opinion against the common good, which right-wing hate outlets like Fox News and Breitbart do on a daily basis. This is not something that any healthy, responsible, and civilized society would allow. It’s certainly not something that Australia or any other advanced democracy would allow.
Like all Australians, Julianne Schultz (one of Australia’s leading journalists and cultural commentators) sees America’s so-called “freedom of speech” and its lack of sensible media regulation as a highly toxic and dangerous force which does far more harm than good. In one of her columns for The Age, Julianne Schultz stated: “Look at freedom of speech as it is exercised in that same dominant superpower, the one with a first amendment to guarantee it. There it verges on becoming corrosive. Exercised by an unconstrained media, voiced by commentators who seek to incite reaction with ever more inflammatory words, or by those tapping away behind screens of anonymity – hideous, hurtful things are said. This can make people fearful, angry and defensive. It does not turn the level of civilisation up.” Likewise, the prominent Australian human rights activist Mariam Veiszadeh has said: “As with any democratic right, freedom of speech should be tempered with responsibility and it is counter productive if those who continously spew hateful and misleading vitriol are the very individuals who continue to thrive from the protection that freedom of speech offers.” The rest of the world does not love America’s so-called “freedom of speech”. To the contrary, in fact. The rest of the world sees America’s so-called “freedom of speech” and lack of media regulation as exactly what it is: toxic, harmful, dangerous, and in desperate need of regulation. Is America honestly prepared to tell every single other country in the world that they’re wrong? Perhaps it is America that is, in actuality, wrong. As the only country in the world that allows the unfettered expression of hate speech and other harmful forms of speech, perhaps America is the one that’s wrong and perhaps the rest of the world is right. Perhaps America desperately needs to institute sensible bans on hate speech and other forms of harmful speech – along with sensible regulation of the media – as all other countries have already done.
Hate speech is even more dangerous in a diverse and multicultural society like the United States. Multiculturalism is one of America’s greatest success stories, but it’s up to everyone to ensure that multiculturalism works. America is the only multicultural society that actually allows bigots to willfully undermine social cohesion, damage community harmony, and incite racial hatred and violence. Do Americans honestly not see how dangerous this is? Hate speech is something that can easily tear apart the very fabric of a diverse and multicultural society. Racism has no place in any society, but racism especially has no place in a society founded on multiculturalism and diversity.
Hate speech goes against the very core values of the United States and the United States Constitution. The United States Constitution very clearly states that “all men are created equal.” Bigotry, however, is based on the belief that people are not equal, and that some people should be hated, discriminated against, and even killed because they are “inferior”. Clearly, this goes against the founding principles that the United States was founded on, and it goes against the very core values of the United States. Does “freedom of speech” give people the right to go against the values of the nation? Of course not. Why, then, should the United States ever allow bigots and hatemongers to speak out freely when they clearly go against absolutely everything that the United States claims to stand for? All other nations ban the dissemination of ideas which go against national values. Racism goes against the values of all modern democracies, which is why all modern democracies ban racism… except for the US. Why does the US continue to allow the dissemination of ideas which clearly have no place in modern society?
The United States was founded on Enlightenment values. It was founded on basic principles of equality, reason, logic, freedom, liberty, and fundamental human rights. But, by failing to take a stand against hatred and bigotry, the United States is betraying these core Enlightenment values. By allowing the unfettered expression of bigotry and discrimination, the United States is spitting in the face of everything that the Enlightenment stood for. Not only that, but America is also spitting in the face of basic human rights – in particular, the basic human rights of the vulnerable and marginalized minority groups that the United States Constitution refers to as being equal citizens. Are Americans really so naive and so ignorant that they cannot see how their refusal to ban hate speech is not only extremely harmful and dangerous, but also in direct opposition to their own national values and their own Constitution?
To quote the Australian theology professor, writer, and human rights supporter Neil Ormerod: “Free speech for racist bigots, free speech for climate denialists. Where will it end? Free speech for the tobacco industry to deny smoking causes cancer? There is a value in free speech to promote reasoned discussion and deliberation. And then there is obdurate and at times wilful ignorance. Smoking does cause cancer, there are no superior races and human-induced climate change is as certain as it is scientifically possible to demonstrate.” Freedom of speech comes with responsibility, and freedom of speech should never be a license to say things which are simply wrong. Protecting freedom of speech does NOT mean protecting right-wing hatemongers, climate change deniers, or people who attempt to argue against the common good. While it’s important to staunchly oppose all forms of censorship, it’s also important to crack down vigorously on all manifestations of hatred. What America needs to do is to strongly protect free speech while aggressively prosecuting all forms of hate speech. Anything else would be a clear violation of international human rights law, and would also be completely unacceptable to the international human rights community. In all other countries, we understand that we are required to outlaw hate speech under international human rights law. Even if the public wanted hate speech laws to be abolished (which the public never would), we would not be able to abolish those laws because international human rights law mandates that we ban all forms of hate speech. In civilized countries, international human rights law is the supreme law of the land – it’s not something that can be defied or even debated. And, rest assured: international law makes it VERY clear that banning hate speech is absolutely mandatory, and the UN has also made it very clear that these international laws cannot be disobeyed, especially when it comes to the need for legal protections against hate speech. America is not exempt from international law. The US is every bit as required to follow international law as all other nations are, which means that the US is every bit as required to outlaw hate speech as the rest of the world is. The US can bring itself up to international human rights standards, but that won’t happen until the US makes sincerely adhering to international human rights law a genuine priority.
In Australia, I worked with many of the country’s leading human rights organizations, and I was a part of many organizations that work with people and communities affected by racist hate speech. Australians understand the extremely harmful effects of hate speech, and there is a very large support network for helping victims of hate speech in Australia. In Australia, there are many organizations dedicated to helping victims of hate speech overcome their abuse and seek justice for it, and there are also many programs encouraging people to report others to the police if they see anyone expressing racist sentiments. Protecting vulnerable minorities from hate speech is just second nature to Australians, and the need to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society from the extremely harmful and damaging effects of hate speech is something that all Australians firmly agree with. Australia is a culture based on fundamental human rights and individual freedoms. The reason that I moved to the US to work with human rights organizations here is because America needs human rights activism MUCH more than Australia does. There is simply no human rights culture whatsoever in the US, and even so-called “progressives” in America still seem to oppose basic human rights. To an Australian like myself, it’s absolutely surreal to see people calling themselves “progressive” while, at the same time, opposing laws against hate speech. Where I’m from, even the most far-right nationalists still believe that there should be at least SOME laws against hate speech. America’s lack of any kind of human rights-based culture is simply unimaginable to people from more civilized, enlightened, and human rights-oriented cultures like Australia and the UK.
To the rest of the developed world, America’s sense of human rights is way behind the times. America falls far behind the rest of the world when it comes to protecting the most basic and fundamental human rights, and the fact that America has no legal protections against hate speech is perhaps the best example of America’s human rights failures. However, that can and, despite everything, I do believe that it will change eventually. For as long as I am alive, I will continue to work to bring America up to date on its international human rights obligations. I will continue to campaign for the enactment of a Human Rights Act banning all forms of hate speech in the US, and for an American Human Rights Commission to prosecute people for hate speech. I do believe that human rights legislation will eventually find its way to the United States. It won’t be easy, but, when it does happen, Americans will hopefully look back and wonder how they could have possibly ever opposed legislation intended to protect fundamental human rights. When America does finally pass a Human Rights Act and set up an American Human Rights Commission, those of us on the right side of history will see it as a major milestone for equality and human rights worldwide. Bigots will, of course, be highly upset, but they will no longer be able to complain once human rights legislation is enacted. Despite all of the abuse that I have received from angry bigots, I remain fully committed to having human rights legislation banning hate speech passed in the US. I am fully committed to bringing America up to date with the rest of the developed world in human rights, which means that I am fully committed to getting hate speech outlawed in the US. Most of all, I am fully committed to ensuring that vulnerable minorities in the US enjoy the same robust human rights protections that vulnerable minorities in Australia, Europe, Canada, and the rest of the world already have. If you believe in basic human rights, human dignity, equality, civility, respect, community harmony, social cohesion, freedom, and civil liberties for all, then you should be just as committed as I am.